How Politics Changes Politicians

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People wonder: What explains so many politicians’ U-turns in their public estimates of Donald Trump? How did Ted Cruz’s 2016 assessment (“a pathological liar,” “utterly amoral,” “a narcissist at a level I don't think this country's ever seen”) mutate into his ardent support? How did Lindsay Graham’s condemnation (a “race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot”) and Marco Rubio’s aspersions (“vulgar,” “an embarrassment,” “a con artist”) metamorphose into their ardent defense of the President? Why did 147 formerly constitution-proclaiming legislators transform from “Don’t impeach, let the people vote!” to not accepting the vote outcome?

Republican politics aside, how is it that politicians of any persuasion can so readily morph from disdain to devotion? To defending what they had previously damned? Does such chameleon-like change aim only to please their public? Or does it also reveal an inner change of heart?

Compliance is Strategic

Surely the pundits are right to argue that much of this behavior is self-serving—caving in to political pressure, or calculated to cater to shifts in voter opinion. Thus, Carl Bernstein can name 21 mostly compliant Republican senators who, in private, “express extreme contempt for Trump and his fitness for office.”

Moreover, the phenomenon is bipartisan. Post-9/11, legislators supported the Iraq war in a 3-to-1 margin despite many private reservations. The U.S. House once overwhelmingly passed a salary increase for itself in an off-the-record vote, then moments later overwhelmingly defeated the same bill on a public roll-call vote. And no more do we hear Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris declaring, as candidate Harris did, that she and Joe Biden would have been on “opposite sides” of school busing.

So yes, public behaviors need not mirror private attitudes. Sometimes we say what we think others want to hear.

Compliance Breeds Acceptance

But there’s a second and more psychologically interesting explanation. As social psychological research has repeatedly shown, saying often becomes believing. Attitudes follow behavior.

In experiments, people have been observed to adapt what they say to please their listeners, and then to begin believing what they have said. Retired University of Oregon psychologist Ray Hyman experienced the phenomenon: “I started reading palms when I was in my teens as a way to supplement my income from doing magic and mental shows. When I started I did not believe in palmistry. But I knew that to ‘sell’ it I had to act as if I did. After a few years I became a firm believer in palmistry.”

The self-persuasive power of our own public behavior typically happens in small steps. In Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience experiments, people did not begin by administering 450 supposed volts of torture, but rather with a mild and hardly-noticed 15 volts. By the time they followed orders to administer 75 volts to the “learner” and heard the first groan, they already had complied 5 times, and justified doing so to themselves . . . after which the next request was for just slightly more. In such a step-by-step fashion, decent people can evolve into agents of cruelty.

Likewise, social movements, from yesterday’s Nazism to today’s White nationalism, start small and build. In more than 100 “foot-in-the-door” experiments, an initial compliance—signing a petition, wearing a lapel pin, writing an essay, stating one’s intention—begins a process that leads people to believe more strongly in what they have said or done. As social psychologist Robert Cialdini observed in his book, Influence, “You can use small commitments to manipulate a person’s self-image; you can use them to turn citizens into ‘public servants,’ prospects into ‘customers,’ prisoners into ‘collaborators.’”

Ralph Waldo Emerson anticipated today’s social psychology. People’s actions “are too strong for them,” he noted. They act and then become “the victim and slave” of their action: “What they have done commits and enforces them to do the same again.” After inducing Richard Rich to betray Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, Cromwell consoles him: “You’ll find it easier next time.” Conscience adjusts.

And so it surely has happened among some of the 126 U.S. House members who signed their support of the Texas attorney general’s effort to overturn the presidential election results in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan, and Wisconsin and the 197 members who contested his second impeachment for inciting insurrection. These one-time Constitution-loving patriots may have strategically hoped to retain the support of their base, preclude a future partisan primary, or avoid the president’s scorn. Yet each time one caves, one’s morality mutates.

In a 1944 lecture, “The Inner Ring,” C. S. Lewis described this slow-cooked process by which the lust for approval and power corrupts:

Over a drink or a cup of coffee, disguised as a triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still—just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naif or a prig—the hint will come. It will be the hint of something which is not quite in accordance with the technical rules of fair play . . . but something, says your new friend, which "we"—and at the word "we" you try not to blush for mere pleasure—something "we always do." And you will be drawn in . . . because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world. It would be so terrible to see the other man's face—that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face—turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected. And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude: it may end in millions, a peerage, and giving prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel.

As J. R. R. Tolkien’s friend, Lewis was familiar with the draw of the magic ring of power, and not just in the Hobbit world.

(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit; follow him on Twitter: @DavidGMyers.)

About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see